Week in the life: Timor's shuttle diplomacy

JOSE RAMOS-HORTA
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The Independent Online
JOSE RAMOS-HORTA, the Nobel peace laureate and de-facto "foreign minister" for East Timor's resistance move ment, has not had much sleep since Indonesia made its unexpected offer of independence to the territory it has occupied for 23 years.

Last week he was on three continents. On the Sunday he was in the United States, where he spends most of his time. Increased interest in Timor has ensured he is "reasonably paid" for his many lectures across the country.

"I used to be grateful if I was given $100 [pounds 60]," he says. "Now my rate is $10,000 [pounds 6,000] per lecture."

But the pace of diplomatic activity on the Timor front has meant most of Mr Ramos-Horta's time is spent in talks, talks and more talks. On Monday he had breakfast with an "old friend", Richard Holbrooke, the American UN ambassador- designate. "We met in a personal capacity," he adds quickly.

The United States is not quite sure what to do about Timor, so contacts with the Timorese resistance are conducted with care. There is strong support for the Timorese in Congress, and Mr Ramos-Horta, an ebullient and urbane networker, was busy working the phones, encouraging its members to support funding requests for a US peace-keeping presence after the Indonesians withdraw.

By Monday night he was flying to Lisbon to meet the President and Prime Minister of Portugal. The former colonial rulers of Timor are proving very helpful, he says. "It speaks volumes about their honesty. They readily acknowledge the way they mishandled decolonisation in 1974- 75 and they want to make up for it."

Between meetings Mr Ramos-Horta was on the phones again, trying to put together a panel of high-level international economic advisers for the new Timor. He also spent a lot of time on the phone to Xanana Gusmao, the leader of the Timorese resistance recently released into house arrest from jail by the Indonesians. Mr Gusmao has been trying to find a way for Mr Ramos-Horta to return to Timor but the Indonesians are not keen to have him on the premises.

"Xanana says they can handle him because he was leading the armed resistance which did not cost them that much," says Mr Ramos-Horta. "What cost them more was the damage to their international reputation. Being a proud people they cannot forgive me for the damage I did."

So he is busy everywhere but in Indonesia. His main Timorese contact is with exiles. In Lisbon he convened a meeting of 300 leaders-in-exile. "All the young people were smiling, I have not seen that for a long time," he says.

They stopped smiling and initially looked puzzled when he told them that after independence he would be standing on the side of those who advocated union with Indonesia, and with migrants who had settled in Timor from other parts of Indonesia.

"For 23 years I was the leading voice of Timor's cause because there was no more vulnerable group, so I will again stand on the side of the vulnerable group," he told them. He knew many of those present had been tortured by the Indonesians, or seen their families killed and their sisters raped.

"The room was silent, then I saw many heads nodding in agreement," he says. "We have to have tolerance and reconciliation." He thinks everything will be lost if that does not happen. Not one person raised a note of dissent when he finished speaking.

By the end of the day he was on a plane again, heading for the Portuguese enclave of Macau. The governor promised to help to mobilise Chinese businessmen to invest in the new Timor.

Mr Ramos-Horta left the governor's palace for a more humble meeting place, to address the Liurais, or traditional royal leaders of Timor. He assured these hereditary rulers they would have a chamber, similar to the House of Lords, alongside an elected parliament.

The Independent met Mr Ramos-Horta in Hong Kong as he talked to more potential investors.

His own role in the new Timor? Mr Ramos-Horta threw up his hands and said: "I only hope I can get away without being in the government.". He wants to be a private citizen, not bound by the protocol and duties of being a foreign minister.

When he collected his Nobel prize in Oslo he wore a black tie for the first time. "I felt ridiculous," he says. "It's not in my genes to be in these formal situations."

Besides, he says, with a twinkle: "What would happen if I were foreign minister and a Timorese Monica shows up? I might be impeached like President Clinton."

By Friday he was in the air again, heading for his temporary exile "home" in Sydney, where he can spend only two months a year.

Will he slip quietly into the role of a private citizen of Timor? Highly unlikely.

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